No picket signs. No boycotts. No fans throwing bricks at Joe Louis Arena.

And not an empty seat in the house.

So much for anger. You couldn’t buy a ticket to this Half- Season Opener, you couldn’t persuade your best friend to share his, it was rainy and cold and dreary, and still, you had to fight your way through mobs to reach the door.

Where were all those threats by the countless talk-show callers — “I’m so sick of this lockout, if they ever come back I won’t go”? Were these the same people who cheered like lusty Romans when, minutes into the game, Shawn Burr smashed a body check into Jeremy Roenick?

Anger? Resentment? Ha.

Game On.

Hockey took the stage Friday night like a rock performer who is typically late. No one complained. They just started clapping. They clapped during introductions and they clapped during the first penalty and they clapped during the first goal.

Never mind that all those things came 112 days behind schedule. Never mind that the season has been sliced, and some of the greatest NHL stars won’t even come through Detroit this year. Never mind that with all this, the owner says that ticket prices will keep going up.

Never mind. Here was Slava Kozlov scooping in a rebound, and new goalie Mike Vernon going splat to stop the puck and Steve Yzerman skating one-on-one and drilling a goal and forget it, the building erupted, like lovers reuniting after a silly spat, all is forgiven. The game is the thing.

Game On. Who’s sorry now?

How do you watch Friday night and not be a little cynical? The festivities began with the lights out, as a giant scoreboard flashed a video, a deep voice throating the word, “Tradition. . . .”

What followed was four minutes of old footage, great players, men who honored the Red Wings uniform over the years. No mention of lockouts, or canceled games. Instead, the scoreboard boomed how the Wings plan to “continue the great Detroit tradition,” and ended with current players saying
“thank-you” to the fans.

What they didn’t say was “sorry.”

Being the best means never having to say that.

“Were you surprised no fans booed?” Darren McCarty was asked after the Wings’ 4-1 victory.

“No,” he said, laughing. “If they were going to do that, they probably would have stayed home.

“I think everybody feels let’s forget about what happened. We have an agreement. We’re back playing.”

Or as Burr put it: “Hockey players are good guys. We don’t want to hurt anybody . . . except each other.”

Fans did boo the scoreboard image of Mike Ilitch. But, as people on his staff might point out, this was after they had given him their money. Only 47 to go

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to see the NHL back in action. It’s a wonderful sport, and no matter what side you took in this labor dispute, you had to believe that some game is better than no game.

In fact, I’d say there’s more excitement for this season because it is shortened. Hockey season used to be like standing in a valley and trying to see over the mountain to the next valley. Now — with just 48 games scheduled
— it’s more like standing in the valley and seeing the mountaintop.

But know this: They didn’t come back for you, the owners and the players, they came back for themselves. Although both sides will tell you how much they love the fans, the fact is, we don’t really count in their decisions. We are a constant. A digit on the board. Put out a winning product, and, they figure, we’ll be there.

Nothing Friday night suggested they were wrong.

And OK. So be it. There’s nothing really wrong with this, as long as we don’t kid ourselves, or waste all that hot air screaming about how “That’s it. We’ve had it!”

Whom are we kidding?

There’s a story Burr told during the lockout about this guy who skated with the Wings during their informal workouts. He had a little talent and was trying hard and was doing OK, mostly because the real players weren’t very serious. Eventually, the guy began to feel cocky.

Then, as soon as a settlement looked realistic, the Wings turned it up a notch and this guy — who actually thought hey, maybe I’m good enough for the NHL — was left in the dust.

The lesson is simple: They do what we cannot do, these players. That is why we show up. That is always why we’ll show up. The truth is, the cast of this game — or any pro game — has to really tick us off to lose that. And after what they’ve done, what else is there to tick us off?

Game On.

What was that lockout about again?

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